The AGS Early Spring Flower Show was a riot of colour with show benches filled to bursting.
Last weekend the travelling circus that is the AGS show community moved on down to Harlow, for the Early Spring Show at Theydon Bois. This was a new hall, after the demolition of the old venue. Although both the show hall and the plant sales hall were smaller than previously, the show was a great success. Both halls were packed with people and plants.
The weather gods were up to their tricks again. I drove all the way round the M25 in torrential rain which was still falling as the exhibitors unloaded their plants.
Later in the day the rain abated and the sun came out to help with the photography. Periodically, we were plunged back into darkness by brief but violent passing showers. At one point there was an inch of hailstones on the paving outside the window where I was working. Much of it had melted by the time I took this picture.
I took just two plants to exhibit, and one of those was the Hesperantha which I showed you at the end of the Pershore report, lying prone across the other pots in my greenhouse. With a bit of judicious double-potting I had persuaded it to stand up, and it opened in the warmth of the hall. I was still afraid it would close, or fall over, so I removed the stake and photographed it immediately before judging.
I had put this in the class for plants rare in cultivation. It grows in stream banks and marshy ground on the Hantamsberg plateau in South Africa. In the wild it is critically endangered – there is a single known population of less than 30 mature plants which is declining.
In habitat it grows much shorter (6 – 10cm), but the South African sun is hard to replicate in our winters. It flowers in early spring, and the flowers are open in daytime. The genus Hesperantha includes two types of species – one group has brightly coloured, unscented flowers which open in daytime and are pollinated by long-proboscid wasps, the other has predominantly white, night-opening scented flowers, pollinated by moths.
It is cultivated by a few enthusiasts, both in South Africa and elsewhere in the world. It needs to be given plenty of water when in growth (as you would expect from its habitat in the wild), but given that it is fairly amenable. My plants are kept just frost-free, but others report it thriving in a raised bed in the open garden. Propagation is normally by seed.
I had only noticed this plant was flowering in the greenhouse because the sun was shining and the spectacular flowers were open; I was delighted when it was second in the class.
The winner of this class, quite rightly, was Paul and Gill Ranson’s plant of Dionysia ‘Tethys’, possibly the last surviving plant of this cultivar. I photographed it at Pershore, but this week there were far more flowers open. Although Paul has distributed it to other growers, including Michael Kammerlander, the origin of the seed, he believes many or all of them have lost it. Paul himself has only the one plant at the moment; recent attempts to propagate it have failed. There’s an indication of just how awkward a plant it is.
At this show there are four different classes for six-pan exhibits. When I photograph individual show plants, I carry the pot over to my photography table, but these large groups are easier to photograph in situ. This is best done during judging, before the hall fills with people. Here is Ian Robertson’s entry for the large six pan class; I am glad I didn’t carry all those pots.
There were two entries in the small six pan class, from Don Peace and Ian Robertson.
Likewise, there were two entries in the class for six pans of rock plants raised from seed by the exhibitor, from Bob and Rannveig Wallis, and from Paul and Gill Ranson.
Next, as usual, I sought out the flower arrangement class. Ben and Paddy Parmee won a First Prize sticker here, which helped them over the line to reach their Gold Medal. This recognises the achievement of 50 firsts, including up to 10 in the Novice section, and up to 15 in the Intermediate section.
I was delighted that they had made it. I have been inching my way towards it for far too many years – I got my Silver Medal in 2004 – and I still have four firsts to go. Even better, I found my friend from Woking, Mike Morton, had got the last first he needed for the Gold Medal he has been working for, in memory of his late wife Ann, who loved these plants.
By now, I had photographed all my usual targets and judging was still in progress. At times like these, I try to seek out entries that the judges didn’t like at all. Maurice Bacon exhibited this Tropaeolum, and was hoping that someone could identify it. I thought it was magnificent, beautifully grown and covered in creamy-white flowers. As far as I could tell it was a hybrid between the coastal species, probably with some T. austropurpureum blood in it. Rosemary Wilson used to send such hybrid seed into the exchanges regularly.
Unfortunately, these coastal species of Tropaeolum seldom succeed at shows. Judges tend to believe that they are easy to grow and not very hardy. In particular, they find them too big, and hate seeing them growing up canes (no artificial supports). Pea-sticks work better, and come close to their natural habit, but this does not satisfy everyone. Joy Bishop used to succeed with them by weaving an upturned dome of sticks, and then thread the new growth in and out to form a cushion of foliage covered in flowers. So the rules about no (visible) artificial supports may be more important than the preference for plants exhibiting their natural habit.
I was still looking for plants I could take away to photograph without incurring the wrath of the judges. This was a most charming tiny hybrid daffodil, from the new or rare in cultivation class in the Intermediate section. Ann Wright selected this cultivar after crossing N. rupicola with N. cyclamineus, but Andrew Ward exhibited it here. Unfortunately, this class requires botanical notes. Andrew did not provide them, so the entry was deemed NAS (not according to schedule). As an example I include a shot of the notes Paul and Gill Ranson provided for their plant of Dionysia ‘Tethys’. Typically, these notes might include information about:
a) where the plant comes from and its habitat in the wild (if a wild species)
b) the parentage and history of the plant (if a cultivated hybrid)
c) identification of the plant (if a wild species)
d) comments about growing conditions in cultivation
At last the judges had finished. The hall filled immediately, and it was hard to move around to carry and photograph plants. Fortunately I was working with my friend Doug Joyce, so we could share plants and carrying duties.
Matthew Jeffery, a student from Kew, won the Essex Award for the Novice section aggregate. This little succulent of his won the Donald Lowndes Memorial Bowl for the best plant in the Novice section.
Around four years ago, Alan Newton exhibited a seed-tray of Anemone caucasica seedlings at the Pershore Spring Show. Unfortunately, that exhibit was covered with moss; once the blackbirds discovered it, they ripped the contents apart to make nesting material. However, this was a successful way of exhibiting a notably tricky little Anemone, and Alan has repeated the experiment.
So many people lined the aisles that it was hard to conduct my usual search for Crocus, and other ‘evanescent’ blooms. I only discovered this little pan from Bob and Rannveig Wallis much later in the day, when it was possible to see across the hall.
I found this one right at the start, but already it was exhibiting its dislike for the heat of the hall. The pristine white petals had started to reflex. The pan had travelled from Northumberland in the car, exhibited by my fellow diarist John Richards.
Chris Lilley exhibited a delightful small pan of the beautiful C. corsicus, sadly overlooked by the judges.
This plant belonged to Ian Robertson’s small six pan entry. It didn’t help his cause, stubbornly refusing to open until judging was finished. Fortunately, I took photographs long into the afternoon. By then, these lovely wine-dark chalices were opening to reveal their golden stigma.
In the Intermediate section, Peter Hurren exhibited several good pans of small bulbs, including a number of pans of this C. tommasinianus selection. Together they helped him win the aggregate for the section, the Epping Trophy.
Peter also exhibited this pan of large white ‘Dutch’ crocuses. These were not at all to the judges’ taste, though I loved them.
Perhaps they are better in the open garden than in a pot; there are vast drifts of them at Saville Gardens which look fabulous at this time of year. I would dearly like to emulate this in my own lawn; I need to find a source of assorted C. vernus corms or seed, rather than selected cultivars.
This tiny form of the same species is much more to the judges’ taste, and a more familiar exhibit. This pan came with Bob and Rannveig Wallis. What lovely little blooms!
The snowdrop season is coming to an end. There was just one I wanted to photograph. Diane Clement exhibited this as the famous ‘Mighty Atom’, but after discussion at the show she concluded that it was ‘Little Ben’. Snowdrops like this make wonderful pot plants; the flowers hang so low that in the garden they always seem to get splashed with mud.
This daffodil is always highly regarded by judges and exhibitors. It is more difficult to grow than most, and always has a graceful poise. I feel that this photo doesn’t do justice to a lovely plant from Bob and Rannveig.
Alan Newton came down from Ponteland for this show, and to see his daughter, bringing several plants. I believe this to be the hybrid which appeared spontaneously for Robin White from seed from Narcissus ‘Bowles Early Sulphur’. The only possible pollen parent was N. cyclamineus.
You also see this cross written the other way round; that should indicate the reverse cross, but I suspect there may just be confusion about the name. I’m not sure which of the seed and pollen parent is placed first by convention, or which name is correct.
This is one of the parent plants of the above daffodil hybrid. It, too, was exhibited by Alan Newton. Note that one of the flowers has 9 petals instead of 6. This has always been a scarce plant in cultivation; I remember it as a very expensive purchase from Kath Dryden in the mid 90s, which thrived for me for about 5 years and then disappeared. Maybe the Narcissus Fly was to blame.
Maurice Bacon from the Essex local group won the Geoff Smith Salver (for the best bulb in the Intermediate and Novice sections) with this little jonquil daffodil.
I always find the daffodil hybrids with N. triandrus blood particularly attractive. This pan from Mike Chadwick in Kent was no exception.
I photographed this rare and lovely Fritillaria the previous week at the Pershore Early Show. This week Bob and Rannveig Wallis won a Certificate of Merit for it.
F. davidii is another rare, tricky and unusual species. On a number of occasions big pans in full flower have won the Farrer medal. This pan from Ian Robertson wasn’t quite up to that standard, but it was good to see it in flower on the show bench again; I haven’t photographed it since 2013.
Here are two very different forms of F. gibbosa, both exhibited by Bob and Rannveig Wallis.
Fritillaria kittaniae can be pure yellow, like this pan from Bob and Rannveig, or yellow with brown stripes on the outside of the petals. Both are striking plants, but I think I prefer the pure yellow ones.
Returning to the Intermediate section, here is a pretty, pale pink cultivar of C. solida, exhibited by Peter Hurren.
From Bob and Rannveig
I always love this species from Bob and Rannveig. I think it looks like tiny people throwing their hands in the air and celebrating.
The Farrer Medal went to this pan of Corydalis from Peter Hood. Bob and Rannveig showed the same species two weeks earlier at Caerleon; they are quite different in habit and make an interesting comparison.
I thought Don Peace’s aconites looked even better this week than last.
I have seen this little Epigaea from Japan growing and flowering in peat blocks at Blackthorn. Alan Newton gave it to Robin and Sue White in exchange for a different species. Here is Alan’s plant in flower; the first time I have photographed it at a show.
Don Peace won the class for a flowering shrub (again) with this little Arcterica.
The second plant I took to the show was this unusual woodlander / cliff-dweller from China. I have seen it exhibited covered in flower, but this is the best I have been able to manage.
In the summer, the pot will be full of large leaves, and the plant wants shade and lots of water. In the winter, I keep it cool and fairly dry under the bench in the greenhouse. It is the subject of research in China because it contains rare chemical compounds which may have medical applications.
This, of course, is the plant which won the Farrer medal last week at Pershore for Diane Clement. I thought it looked even better this week; the flower stems had elongated somewhat, and the whole potful looked better balanced.
In one of my earlier blogs, I commented that Diane’s Hepatica weren’t yet out. They are now. I chose to photograph this one because of the unusual, brick-pink colour.
This is a cultivar which has been grown in this country for quite a while now, and we see large, established plants. Robin Alabaster exhibited this one.
The 90th Anniversary Award for the best plant in a 19cm pot went to Don Peace for this lovely white cultivar with purple stamens.
Diane Clement exhibited a lovely colour form of this hybrid between H. maxima and H. nobilis.
I photographed two different plants of this choice member of the Ranunculaceae. John Richard’s plant had pure white flowers; on Don Peace’s plant the petals had pink backs.
This week, my pick of the Pleione was this lovely hybrid from Robin Alabaster.
Others might have chosen this lovely white form from Ian Robertson. This species usually has large white flowers with a pronounced bright yellow lip. In Ian’s clone, the lip is a much paler, lemon yellow.
I still can’t resist this little Pleione, despite photographing it at the last two shows. Steve Clements brought a small pan of it, in place of the huge one we saw last week. For me, it makes a better picture. The small grouping of pseudobulbs and flowers is much more appealing.
This week, Barry Tattersall was at the show for the first time this year. Barry is the maestro of growing European orchids in pots, so it was exciting to see some of his plants again. I thought this was a fantastic form of Anacamptis longicornu with bright purple and white flowers; it is quite variable in the wild.
I photographed this plant from Steve Clements last week, but I wasn’t happy with the close ups, so I tried again. This time I found the perfect framing and composition, but the pictures I took of that view all have visible shake. This can occur because people were walking on the sprung hall floor near me, or because the tripod leg is touching the table the plant is on. Either way, I still don’t have a picture I am really happy with.
This is the Giant Orchid from Southern Europe, exhibited by Steve Clements, and in rude health. It is a very vigorous species.
By contrast, this little orchid from Barry Tattersall was tiny, but exquisite.
This was Barry’s pan of the Sawfly Orchid; for me it brings back memories of the Picos mountains last May.
Ian Robertson exhibited a nice large pan of Cyclamen coum.
One of my favourite plants this week was this little C. persicum from Robin Alabaster. It is the form from the Golan Heights, and is nearly hardy in the open garden. I particularly liked the leaf pattern and the strong pink of the flowers.
The show benches are still full of Dionysia, nearly all of them from Paul and Gill Ranson. I tried to focus on plants I have seldom photographed before, and certainly not the plants I have already recorded this year.
I always love the colour of ‘Selene’; it is stronger and warmer than the very pale yellow of ‘Monika’ but not as brash as the multitude of bright yellow D. tapetodes cultivars and hybrids. Again, this was a Ranson plant, and helped them win the Elliott Trophy for the Open Section
This is a complex hybrid, raised by Norman Jobson but exhibited by Paul and Gill Ranson. The parents were D. bryoides and a hybrid between D. microphylla and D. ‘Chris Grey-Wilson’ (itself a hybrid between D. freitagii and D. viscidula). So this seedling potentially has genes from four different pink/purple species, though looking at it, the influence of D. bryoides seems to be strongest.
Paul and Gill received a Certificate of Merit for this pan of the D. tapetodes cultivar ‘Kate’, selected originally by John Dixon. I love the way selected forms and hybrids in these difficult genera are passed around between the experts. It is the only way to keep them in cultivation; if someone else has material when you lose yours, they may be able to return the gift.
Although he comes from Northumberland, John Richards is a regular visitor to this show. He has always been a keen grower of Primula species, and Primula elatior in particular. This was a seedling which didn’t come true. It looks as though the bees have been visiting something else as well, probably the vulgar Primrose.
There were fewer Primula allionii than the previous week. Some of the keenest growers are from the North-West, and didn’t travel down for this show. However, I thought this was a fine large cushion of one of Brian Burrow’s older selections, all the way from Scunthorpe, courtesy of Clare Oates.
Many exhibitors will know that, although I grow mainly bulbs, I have long experience of primulas. My stepfather is David Philbey, who specialised in Primula allionii and European Primula hybrids. Over twenty-five years ago I started driving him and a car full of primulas to shows around the country.
At one time he had over a thousand different cultivars; out of all of them, my personal favourite was always ‘Ellen Page’. It has never been common, and you seldom see it grown to this size. But the flowers are a beautiful shape and colour, and close up the petals are edged with a fine gold line.
After some very old cultivars, it was nice to see a new one. This is a very beautiful new hybrid raised by Nigel Fuller, and named for one of his grand-daughters.
I would like to end with a couple of Saxifraga. We don’t often see S. oppositifolia on the show bench; it is hard to grow to show condition in a pot. In fact, I had never photographed this subspecies at all, so I was glad that Paul and Gill Ranson brought it along.
Every year around this time we see large pans of Kabschia saxifrages, and tend to ignore them. We seldom photograph them unless they reach award-winning dimensions and quality. But they are one of the mainstays of the spring shows, and I took this seedling raised by Geoff Mawson to remind myself, and everyone else, of their presence.
This show is always well supported by the local groups, and everything went smoothly and efficiently in the new hall. The kitchen staff had even been briefed to give me free tea all day; what more can a show photographer ask for!
Show secretary Kit Strange is fortunate in at least one way. She gets a lot of support from her local groups. But also, because she works at Kew, she can usually spirit up a small army of students to help with the heavy work of moving tables and chairs before and after the event.
My thanks to Kit and everyone else involved. It was a great team effort. I had a wonderful day, and the new venue was a huge success.
Jon lives and gardens on the north side of the Hogsback on the border between Hampshire and Surrey, on a heavy clay soil. He is a long standing member of the AGS and has been treasurer of the local group in Woking for many years. He is especially interested in bulbs of all sorts, particularly those from South Africa, and is progressing slowly towards his Gold Medal at shows, at the rate of roughly one first per year.
However, he is best known within the AGS as an enthusiastic amateur photographer. For about 10 years he was responsible for organising the artistic and photographic section of the AGS shows around the country, and also for organising the show photography. During this period, he set up and ran the AGS Digital Image Library. He is still actively involved in plant photography, both at shows (he visits many shows each year to catalogue the extraordinary achievements of the exhibitors) and in gardens both public and private, and he makes regular outings to view and photograph wild flowers in the UK.
If you have any comments or queries for Jon, you can contact him direct at email@example.com